Writers are often boring, especially the good ones, and for any number of reasons, all of which have one thing in common: a little too much of the characteristic in evidence—crankiness, opinionation, confidence, self-loathing, sensitivity, loathing. As if that excessiveness were not enough, writers tend to distinguish themselves by another habit or manner, even more provoking than the first. Most people want you to say what you mean (by which they often mean, what they mean). Most writers, on the other hand, are like the forgotten John Jay Chapman: they want to say something and have you see what it means—and then, like the famous Robert Frost, claim ownership both of what they said and of what you think they meant.
Generally, people who admire writers, or profess to, really admire the stories they tell, just as people who claim to love the ocean really love the shore they see the ocean from. Authors are more often referred to as "they" or "it says" than by name. Names of authors are completely unimportant to most readers, the first things they forget. Further, most readers prefer stories that come out of and end up in "positive" feelings, happy moods, the good things in life. Not the negatives, the obstructions, the pessimisms, the difficulties, the complications. Another popular idea about writers is that they are more sensitive than most people. But writers often crave insensibility, as the long line of drunks and addicts in literary history indicates.
Why do they? It may be because they know that the sword is mightier than the pen, that history, as William James wrote in 1910, is a "bloodbath." Long before we thought of writers as vacation companions and writing as therapeutic, poets were prized as companions of the camps. That Alexander the Great was tutored by Aristotle and slept with Homer under his pillow was a commonplace of Renaissance and Enlightenment thought. The writer knows what the moral equivalent of war is. In 1589, George Puttenham made a poem called "Cupid's War" an example of "pragmatographia" or "counterfeit action"—writing, in other words, that "you can relate to, because it's like you're there and it's happening." Lord Byron quotes Alexander Pope as saying that the life of a writer is "warfare on earth." Nietzsche said, "I have been more a battlefield than a man," and spoke of the struggle between poetry and prose in a writer's life as "civil war." Ezra Pound in a 1914 review of Robert Frost's first book of poems said that poetry concerns itself with two emotions only, love and hate—and variations on them. Then, in a long footnote to his 1920 essay on Henry James, Pound spoke of prose as something negative, as the analysis of something detestable that one wants to do away with. That form of writing is not much in demand today.
Still, writers are praised and blamed, found valuable and avoidable, greeted warmly and kicked, thought moving and disappointing, wished more widely known and deemed minor. Writers represent, in short, a type that either does not or should not exist. In this, writers are like rhetoric or Fred Flintstone's pet: you can kick them out the door, but they'll come back in through the window. Writers—even best-selling ones like Judith Krantz in fiction or Jewel or Jimmy Stewart in poetry—are likely to be more quizzical than others about the same things. They tend to try harder than most people not to dismiss the difficulties. They try, even, to celebrate them; when they do, the unpopular ones are often called "academic," meaning useless or boring. If they insist on the difficulties, they are called "experimental" or "difficult." But the truly difficult person says, "I'm an exception." The writer knows better: there are no exceptions—none, anyway, that lasts for long. Writers, like most people, are weak, impressionable, and irritable, but more openly and, if they get into print, more availably. But writers are no better at cutting and running than others: they only express the wish more often and more vividly. If they cut and ran as often as they wished, they'd get no writing done. Take Emerson. Emerson is always on the verge of making himself exceptional—either exceptionally puny, ineffective, and futile, or exceptionally stable and transparent. He gave his "Laws of Writing" to the young George Woodbury one day in 1860. There are ten of them: Emerson's Proud Discontent
Emerson claimed to have no use for the "available rules," all of which can be inferred from these laws, and said he neither wanted to describe nor celebrate them. He conceived of his writing as a turning of the back on accepted norms and forms and rules, but he knew how briefly this turning lasted; and, after all, to turn one's back, to quit, to leave—that's also an available rule. Emerson told himself to make this point about the brevity of freedom to the students at Dartmouth College in 1838: "Let them know how prompt the limiting instinct is in our constitution, so that the moment the mind by the bold leap has set itself free . . . on the instant the defining lockjaw shuts down his fetters . . . and the last slavery is even worse than the first."
Emerson's essays try to do justice to this leaping and this shutting down, this first and last slavery. One can be enslaved to being bold as boldly as one can to going unnoticed. Emerson never holds "our constitution" in contempt for long, though. It promises freedom. "As even in college," he reports, "I was content to be 'screwed' in the recitation room, if, on my return, I could accurately paint the fact in my youthful Journal." But Emerson doesn't ask for the condition to be granted prior to his being screwed: he's going to be screwed anyway. And it will have been worth it, if some writing comes out of it.
Emerson found it hard to get much of a reception for his idea that Concord was a prison or a plantation, and he its prisoner or slave. But, as Robert Frost pointed out, people don't like to think of themselves as going down before anything less than the worst—and what worse than dying a slave in prison? In writing after getting screwed, Emerson kept his self-pity in check. He checked it, too, by remaining faithful to casual and mundane experiences—pleasant weather, long walks, birdsong, the stars at night: "At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog and Nature seemed to say Well do not these suffice? Here is a new scene, a new experience. Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world hanker after thunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Niagara." Still, as the passage suggests, Emerson hankered.
Desire won't be checked. The things around us, and the persons near us, are insufficient to satisfy us, and eventually annoy us. Inside—aunts, friends, neighbors; outside—a bird, a frog, stars. They can all be "degrading and injurious," Emerson said, to our better natures. So can protest. Though Emerson publicly protested the US government's treatment of the Cherokee Indians in 1838, the experience, he said, was "like dead cats around one's neck," like "School Committees & Sunday School classes & Teachers' Meetings & the Warren Street Chapel & all the other holy hurrahs. I stir in it for the sad reason that no other mortal will move & if I do not, why it is left undone. The amount of it, be sure, is merely a Scream but sometimes a scream is better than a thesis." He talks in the same tone about having to weed the garden.
The productive value of these impediments to writing—weeds, injustice, visitors, piety, power—was not lost on Emerson, but he felt that such forces were superficial, "cutaneous," and he wanted to be less rather than more open to them. Like Napoleon, he aspired to resemble "a block of marble during all the great events of his life," so that they "slipped over him without producing any impression on his moral or physical nature." What he called "the Napoleon temperament" would make him the most sensitive or the most unfeeling instrument. Like the eyeball, the thing that wrote in Emerson did not want to be touched. What are the disadvantages of being marble? It helps not to have been born in the condition, before you become the block of marble. It helps to have wit; it helps to have read widely; it helps to be a fluid writer; it helps to have a little money—and then it's safe to become marble. It could be that Emerson knew human companionship, as John Jay Chapman said Emerson did, chiefly in the form of pain; it could be that he craved insensibility; it could be that he identified in some refined way with rocks and stones, and had a special appreciation of the identity of mass and energy. After visiting a museum and seeing a specimen of azote, Emerson said that it impressed him because he just was azote. "We are stardust, we are golden," as Joni Mitchell sings. "All beings play into each other's hands," according to Emerson. He disliked people who talked of their "spiritual side." That was to make exceptions, to part things out. He hated squinting, furtiveness; he loved the plain and fierce, and those who looked at you with their whole head. But these antagonized him, too, and didn't tell the whole story. The blocks of marble, the impassive temperaments, the robotic eye sockets could be as perturbing as "the rueful abortions that squeak and gibber in the street." Emerson's writing often feels like a broken sculpture garden, Michelangelo and Rodin's unfinished executions.
Writers sometimes claim that they would be happy to lose themselves in the actual order of things, the "desultory questions," the available rules. But they can't, or won't, lose themselves happily for long. I am a writer who feels daunted and tethered, who is moved by a temperament I don't possess, and uses it to illustrate the one I do—a writer who gets revenge on the inarticulate by making sharp observations and despotic pronouncements.
There are two functions of style—or, if you prefer, form: the second is to teach new dogs old tricks, and in this Emerson excelled. He put his books together by breaking up his journals; he put his journals together by breaking up his life and his friends' lives, and the books he read. He was not independent of creeds, institutions, and tradition—who is?—but relied on them, to his great annoyance. What else can individual consciousness and energy rely on? If one is part of all, everything is built-in, factory-equipped, and no serious after-market options exist but More and Less. To which Emerson says: "It is in the nature of the soul to appropriate all things." If you don't believe in the soul, this statement is bland at best; if you do, you should know what Emerson means. If you think you know what it means both to believe and not to believe in the soul, as most literary persons think they do, you'll find that the sentence sharply sums up everything that's wrong with Emerson—or with your friend the writer, who uses you for material. Some write out of scorn for anything having to do with the soul; Emerson wrote out of scorn for everything but the soul. Henry James assumed that Emerson's life in Concord lacked "passions, alternations, affairs, adventures"—but it wasn't so. (Substitute you for Emerson and your address for Concord, and see if it isn't so.) How would Henry James have known, anyway? James, whose dramatic imagination was ravenous, wanted that background for Emerson so that Emerson could seem all the more remarkable in his rise from a colorless, unbroken surface to a colossus-like proportion in a mere forty years.
The "enviable quiet" that supposedly surrounded Emerson is supposed to surround all writers: they read, sleep, take walks, eat, write, and drink. Writers' colonies are set up to embody that image of the literary life. Emerson chafed against it and, like many other writers, cultivated it. "I dwell with my mother, my wife, and two little girls, the eldest five years old, in the midst of flowery fields," he wrote to an English poet in 1844. No mention of the loss of his son Waldo, two years earlier, or of the effects of the Depression of 1837 on his household economy. Instead, Emerson says his and his friends' habit "is so solitary that we do not often meet." He wonders how the German scholars are managing to put in twelve-, thirteen-, fifteen-hour days; "there are but seven hours, often but five, in an American scholar's day." What John Jay Chapman called "the apparent futility" of Emerson's "external life" was simply a shortcut Chapman took in his exposition. Both James and Chapman forgot Emerson's forty years as traveling lecturer, the visitors he hosted, his dealings with publishers, his family life. They didn't care about that stuff any more than they thought Emerson did. They, too, wanted only the ideal harvest, the books minus the circumstances—so they pretended there were no circumstances worth speaking of, and moved on.
An instinct for stability and repose, an instinct that seeks an outward type—mother, bed, dog, exercise, partner—to impress itself on, to rely on, seems natural to most of us. As we grow up, we find and lose, and choose and refuse, slates of likely candidates, and yet we seem to be whole or real without them, sometimes in the event and sometimes after. We go on, at any rate; we survive. How? By internalizing, we say, these representatives at large. Nothing outside us, apparently, props us up. We must achieve an inner repose, more or less. Like shampoo, we are "self-adjusting." Or so the technical writing says we are.
The writer sees at once both how inessential other people are to that repose or balance, and what a threat to it they can be. And yet the writer goes on trying to find that permanent thing, that one thing not fleeting, and this search disturbs the repose. For Emerson—offering repose naturally and etymologically to listeners and readers he thought were insane with action, work, and progress—that one thing was the desire for permanency itself. On this ground alone, "the opportunities of society" were to be refused. "Hitch your wagon to a star," he tells us, knowing that most of us want to get hitched to other people, to houses and places. The Sage of Concord objects to such low aims with a "proud discontent," like Hamlet's. But Emerson, who almost single-handedly made "self-reliance" a household American virtue, doesn't discuss Hamlet's problem—his inability to act, to decide on a course of action—as Johnson, Coleridge, Goethe, and Hazlitt had. Emerson doesn't have Hamlet's problem; he is decided, convinced. For him, the problem is that Hamlet, the play, exists—and Shakespeare is responsible for that. Had Shakespeare's Folio been published a few years earlier, Emerson noted in his Journal, our "Pilgrim forefathers" might have decided to stay at home.
But Shakespeare isn't the problem, either—no more than the Constitution of the United States is, or the poem you just loved in The New Yorker, or the latest war, or the freshest rejection. None of these things is worth "dispersing"; rather, each must be taken in, by an act of "compensation." "It is the nature of the soul to appropriate all things. Jesus and Shakespeare are fragments of the soul, and by love I conquer and incorporate them in my own conscious domain. His virtue,—is not that mine? His wit,—if it cannot be made mine, it is not wit."
This may be the ultimate in complaisance, or indifference, or in what has been called "transcendentalism." But does it really differ in kind from positively suggesting that anyone can be a writer or a parent, a financial analyst or a trumpet player? Emerson often challenged his materialistic fellow Americans. "If you believe in the senses," he said, "try living by their laws for one day." Or this: "Are you fond of drama? say the gods, said you so, my fine fellow? Verily? Speak the truth a little, & truth on truth, . . . to all persons & woman; try that a few hours & you shall have dramatic situations, assaults & batteries, & heroic alternatives fast enough, to your heart's content."
There's no denying that we couldn't get through a day on either the senses or truth-telling alone; we need an admixture of abstraction and tact. Emerson knew that it was also futile, if possible, to refuse "false norms and available rules" for eight hours. The land of possibility, of anything and everything, is a wasteland. The Nike slogan, "Just do it," has nothing on Emerson, who wrote in his journal in 1840, "Do your thing and I shall know you." He then changed it, for publication in "Self-Reliance," to "Do your work, and I shall know you," "Do your work, and you shall have the power." He was translating the second line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 94, about people who "do not do the thing they most do show." Emerson advises us to do the thing we most do show; having done it, we will have made room for ourselves to do it in. Examples of this process are legion: inventions, start-ups, poems, fifteen-minute fames, neighborhood watches. Whenever I hear myself saying, "Why didn't I think of that?," I think of Emerson's advice, which is founded on the observation that most people are capable, but timid and uncertain. We call such people "reactive." Emerson was "proactive." He had suffered enough missed opportunities, and seen enough lives snuffed out early, to know that most of the things others did around him or for him he could do for himself, if he wanted to. This is what he called his "one" doctrine: "the infinitude of the private man." I suppose it does not go without saying that though it may not work for me or you, we are not therefore justified in saying that it never did or does or will work for others. Do your thing—and don't talk too much about it, lest you become that most miserable of creatures, the rebel who rebels against his own revolt.
But enough about Emerson. A professor I never took a class from in graduate school liked to say, "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think Emerson has something to tell us, and those who don't." Professor Bolton was using Emerson as a stalking horse to get at the head of his department, Richard Poirier, who thought Emerson had something to tell us. I think Emerson has something to tell us, but I'm not sure, from essay to essay, from one page of his journal to the next, what that is—as if writers were obliged to leave one message, while the rest of us are free to message each other instantly. Emerson has nothing to tell plenty of people, but in this he differs in no way from Shakespeare or Seventh Day Adventists or Buddhists, from Danielle Steel or the editorial page of the New York Times.
I can't read Emerson without sooner or later getting up and going outside to see if nature is law, if the squirrel leaping from bough to bough makes the forest one tree. When I come back in and open the book, Emerson is calm. "Patience," he says, "patience." Patience is his cure-all, his allopathy and his homeopathy. If for six or seven hours a day I read and think in terms of poetry, America will be a poem in my eyes; everything will be a poem in my eyes. Reading and writing tend to remove me, or make me feel removed, from my immediate experience. The sense of being removed is deepened when I write, because, as Toni Morrison has said, the impulses that moved me to write are useless when I write. I may be writing about grief, death, love, friendship, or sex, but I am not feeling, making, or having those things at the time of writing; virtually, maybe, surreptitiously, vicariously—but not vitally.
There are moments when, drunk, stoned, or jacked up on caffeine and nicotine, or just rested from sleeping, I've become more articulate than I am, wiser than I ever was. And then the moment passes. "The solids, the centers, rest itself, fly & skip," Emerson writes. "Rest is a relation, & not rest any longer." And so, for Emerson, a person is a relation, and not a person any longer. I can't do without relation for as long as I can do without people. Nor could Emerson, who relates on almost every page something I know and something I don't, or did once, or almost did. He tells me something about the way I live, about the way most of us live, about the way we don't live, might live, should live. He tells me these things in surprising ways. Unsettled, I begin to think for myself, to make connections, to put my own interpretation on things; and then I go on doing so without him.
I find Emerson reconciling theory and practice every day. I verify him every day. It's a mistake to think that anyone else's Emerson can be my Emerson, or that my Emerson doesn't have other people's Emersons mixed in. If there's life at first-hand, there's no telling at what hand life ceases. I got Emerson first at second-hand, through a namesake of Emerson's; then through a college friend; then through a graduate school seminar presided over by Richard Poirier. I first read Emerson in January of 1984. I understood everything he said, it seemed to me. But the essay called "Self-Reliance" didn't seduce me. It was Poirier who seduced me. He suggested that I and my classmates had missed the strangeness and the slipperiness of Emerson. "What's he talking about here?" Poirier asked, and then read this passage:
Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that forever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside. Why, then, do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confidant but agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is.
What was slippery? What was strange? My life was all darting and shooting. Life, becoming, process, change—these were our watch-words. Nothing in the passage was unfamiliar. We spoke, not of self-reliance, but of self, and if we weren't comfortable with the word "soul," or with the adjectives "confident" and "agent," "energy" was good enough, "potential" and "kinetic," or "real," were good enough. The passage may have seemed strange and slippery to a man of my father's age, born in 1930, but to us, born in 1959, it seemed both prophetic and immediate. Emerson was translating current imperatives, the things we were telling ourselves: Don't rest on your laurels; don't live in the past; don't look back. Keep moving. Do your thing.
Was Emerson saying things that lay on the verge of the unsayable 150 years ago? Or was he saying what, even then, was on everybody's lips? Or was he reworking wise saws to fit modern instances, teaching new dogs old tricks? He was doing a little bit of each, and his reading convinced him that every writer did the same; that, as he says in his essay on "Goethe; or, The Writer," "All things are engaged in writing their history." As I was reading Emerson in 1984 and finding in him my contemporary, so Emerson was reading Shakespeare in 1838 and finding in him his contemporary. I couldn't rest in reading him. "Power ceases in the instant of repose." And yet Emerson seemed full of repose and certainty when, later in the same essay, he called traveling "a fool's paradise" and recommended staying at home. I began to wonder what he meant by "repose," what he meant by "power." I knew those words, but he was using them in strange ways. What did it matter that I hadn't found in Emerson's pages what Poirier had found? As Emerson says in another essay, a book is a thousand books to a thousand readers; read your eyes out—you won't find what I find. This makes him rewarding to read and difficult to discuss: he is a thousand authors. In going from sentence to sentence, from Journal to Lecture to Essay, Emerson makes literature, what he calls the "whole extant product of the human mind," one index, one Rolodex, one Blackberry, one Web.
Between 1984 and 1992, Emerson ruined my life. As he blamed Shakespeare for making Concord seem so bare, so I blamed him for making New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, and Colorado seem so bare. What was it that I found so compelling in Emerson? He often stood me up after he'd called me, put me in my place as soon as he'd made me feel ecstatic. He reminded me of the trick my friend and I used to play on my dog. We would call her over with the tone that said "Get out of here" and tell her to get out of here with the tone that said "Come here." We'd say "Good dog" in the tone of "Bad dog" and "Bad dog" in the tone of "Good dog." Sam usually ignored us, but I couldn't ignore Emerson. I became the Emerson expert among my graduate school colleagues. They would ask me where the passage was that they were looking for, and I'd search until I found the place. Emerson is endless. Yvor Winters was right: "there is no context in Emerson." Or he was wrong: Emerson is all context, and we are the lumberjacks who, in going from sentence to sentence, reduce his forest to one tree.
Emerson abbreviates, slights, condenses, ignores, degrades, reduces, disposes, dissolves, neglects, and detaches—all in the name of identifying, of heightening. Heightening, as Mark Richardson says, is the key to Concord thought. It is perhaps also the key to American thought, to its Republic of Letters, its Declaration of Independence, its Constitution. All are agents of a lofty unification. Emerson takes them from within, however, not from without. They were first energies within persons. They are not functions of the dramatic imagination, which wants to spectate, to have something out there that guarantees what's within. Emerson railed against this preposterous state of things. If our constitution is only in our dramatic imaginations, it doesn't stand a chance against television, cars, computers, and murder. And if it's in our bones, why be so pious about its "original intent"?
I say that Emerson ruined my life. I was not the first whose life he'd warped. Stephen Emerson Whicher committed suicide after finishing the introduction to a collection of articles on Emerson. Yvor Winters, the Stanford professor and poet, argued that the "doctrine of Emerson and Whitman, if really put into practice, should naturally lead to suicide: in the first place, if the impulses are indulged systematically and passionately, they can lead only to madness; in the second place, death, according to the doctrine, is not only a release from suffering but is also and inevitably the way to beatitude." Winters goes on to argue that Emersonianism played a crucial role in the poet Hart Crane's life, which ended in suicide. (But this is as absurd as the claim that John Wayne was responsible for the Vietnam war.) John Jay Chapman said in 1897 that Emerson sent 10,000 young men to their death in the Civil War. Closer to home, stories still circulate that graduate students who set out to write dissertations on Emerson (Sharon Olds was one) ended by quitting graduate school or, worse, finishing, becoming professors, and then finding themselves unable to turn their dissertations into books. As Whicher concluded, "Emerson is, for all his forty-odd volumes, finally impenetrable."
Fair enough. On the other hand, Emerson clearly registers, again and again in those forty-odd volumes, what he called "the absence of any appearance of reconciliation between the theory and practice of life." By which I think he means both that there isn't one example in recorded history of an appointment that was kept, and that we always exaggerate our disappointment that this is so. Our disappointment, too, is partial; nothing is round and final. No performance equals the promise. We all fall short. None of us is enough, has enough, knows enough, does enough. We never touch each other but at points, like porcupines. We come near, we get close, we hold off. Emerson summed up the year 1843 this way:
The year ends, and how much the years teach which the days never know! The individuals who compose our company converse, & meet, & part, & variously combine, and somewhat comes of it all, but the individual is always mistaken. He designed many things, drew in others, quarreled with some or all, blundered much, & something is done; all are a little advanced; but the individual is always mistaken.
Not long ago, in the New York Times, Ted Levine, "age 60-plus," published an Op-Ed piece against senior discounts. "Having grown up reading 'Self-Reliance' by Ralph Waldo Emerson," Levine wrote, "I wonder what we have done to deserve all this commercial generosity. Somehow, not dying doesn't seem a sufficient justification." Mr. Levine's idea of self-reliance is, at best, a watered-down sip of Emerson's. Self-reliance as Emerson describes it has little or nothing to do with deserving or with justification. His essay doesn't endorse the message that Mr. Levine takes from it: "I work for what I get; no handouts."
Halfway into the essay, published in 1841, Emerson stops to ask, "But why do we prate of self-reliance?" His answer indicates that the problem is not the prating, but the reliance. "To talk of reliance," he says, "is a poor, external way of speaking. Speak, rather, of that which relies, because it works and is." "That which relies" would seem to be the "self," yet Emerson doesn't name it as such. The word "reliance" annoys him, as if people were pronouncing the compound word with an emphasis on the wrong half. Emerson found it difficult to get himself understood on this matter. And why not, if the individual is always mistaken, and Emerson is an individual? If "the individual is always mistaken," why not rely on reliance instead of the self? If I am always mistaken, why rely on myself? As we all know, we can't rely on others: being individuals, they too are mistaken. Then where does the solution lie? Emerson found a dozen ways to give it a local habitation and a name—"truth," "the unsounded center," "a lower deep," "the race," "the Universal Genius," "the Abyss," "your thing," "your work." None was satisfactory. But "that which relies, because it works and is"—how could something so awkward and slippery have become America's secular principle of salvation? (It didn't.) If the self Emerson is constrained to speak of relying on is not the individual, then what is it? "It works and is," is all he says. In 1837, he had called it "the Self of Nature and Nation," the self that Whitman would project twenty years later in "Song of Myself." But the problem remained: our access to that Self comes only through our mistaken individual selves, which, the minute they begin to bind or hold—that is, to rely—become "poor" and "external." How, then, does the self "work" and "be"? Emerson's lack of a concrete answer is no better or worse than anyone else's. Self-reliance is an energy, not a status; a process, to use one of our tired words, and not a result. And it is as much a process in society as it is in solitude. As Frost puts it in "The Tuft of Flowers," we "work together, whether we work together or apart." We work, we get worked up, we get worked over, we get worked in. We work out, we work it out, we let it work itself out. It works, it works out. It "works and is."
Repeatedly in his essays, Emerson will say that something that has been written—the sentence he just wrote, for example, or the essay, or the book he had just finished reading—has "yet to be written." There are no final words, only "signs of power," indications of our potential to do work. The writer observes what people, animals, and trees do in order "to derive from their performance a new insight" for their own. John Jay Chapman, who wrote one of the best essays on Emerson, and whose son is the subject of both Steely Dan's "Barrytown" and Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, says that philosophy and drama differ in that the former "says what it means" while the latter "says something and you see what it means." Emerson, like most serious writers, would prefer to leave something up to his readers; that was one of his ten laws of writing, and he obeyed it. He would rather I catch his drift than he state his position. So he drops links, goes sideways, zigzags. He doesn't give us "paraphrasable content." Emerson works on you, or doesn't, after you've stopped reading him. There's no better way to describe the Emersonian attitude toward literature: the real book is not the printed one. That is the sign; you are the power. Any book that grows within you after you put the printed one down is a great book. The reader, Emerson said, "should esteem his own life the text and books the commentary upon it."
Instead of saying to a new generation of readers that Emerson can't write expository prose, that he's hard to read, that he's the fountainhead of a predatory American optimism, why not say, "Here's a new generation untainted by 'literature,' one that knows itself to be bored, attention-deficient, learning-disabled, and channel-surfed. This is just the generation that Emerson in some sense called into being; just the audience Emerson needs to be tested by." Maybe that experiment, like so many, would be superfluous. John Jay Chapman gave the result of his in 1909. Emerson, Chapman wrote,
let loose something within me which made me in my own eyes as good as anyone else. To express this I invented a phrase which I have always thought equal to any of Emerson's own exhortations to spiritual independence, and much more modest in form. It was this: "After all it is just as well that there should be one person like me in the world."
There is another problem: Emerson's writing has no story and no characters—unlike, say, Jane Austen's. This is what Emerson has to say about Austen's writing—or rather, about the people who like to read her. And so he takes aim at us, who would rather see movies based on Jane Austen novels than read Emerson:
I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate, which seem to me so vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched & narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer in both the stories I have read, "Persuasion", and "Pride & Prejudice", is marriageableness . . . . Suicide is more respectable.
Marriageableness and suicide were practical questions in Concord between 1830 and 1860, when Emerson was doing his work; they are no less practical today. Through them, Emerson addressed more generally what he called, in the title of his last book, Society and Solitude. We do the same, beginning with the discrepancy between what is and what could be, and ending with the question that forms the title of a recent best-seller by Po Bronson, "What shall I do with my life?" Emerson had an answer. He wrote in his journal in 1838:
I find no good lives. I would live well. I seem to be free to do so, yet I think with very little respect of my way of living; it is weak, partial, not full & not progressive. But I do not see any other that suits me better. The scholars are shiftless & the merchants are dull.
Emerson understood the productive potential of low self-esteem. And when he found a "good life"—he said that a "personal ascendancy" was the only thing worth contemplating—he liked to "degrade"—one of his favorite words—that ascendancy. In 1867, Emerson and his daughter Ellen went to see General Ulysses S. Grant in New York. Emerson took Grant's ascendancy, his representative stature, for granted. He was happy to come away thinking that Grant wasn't much, was pretty regular, like the rest of us, who know nothing, do nothing, are nothing. Plato, Goethe, Napoleon, and Shakespeare received the same estimate. Each, Emerson felt, could have ascended a little higher. "Every man," he wrote "is not so much a workman in the world as he is a suggestion of that he should be." That "should be" resides in almost every sentence Emerson wrote. And most men I know (and some women, too) feel, if they seldom say so, that there's something more they should be doing, something more they should be, than what they do and are.
"We grant that life is mean," Emerson wrote, "but how did we find out that it was mean? What is the ground of this uneasiness of ours; of this old discontent? What is the universal sense of want and ignorance, but the fine innuendo by which the soul makes its enormous claim?" Perhaps. But most of us don't feel this "universal sense of want and ignorance" much, or often. We don't ask ourselves how we found out that "life is a bitch, and then you die." We don't frequently tell each other, either, that we haven't been doing our best, or that we could stand to learn a little more. Most of us, in short, are not writers, and, when conscious of what one of Emerson's contemporaries, the English playwright Henry Irving, called "the littleness that clings to human things," rarely take our sense of worthlessness for the soul making its "enormous claim"—not when we're feeling unhappy, unsatisfied, and discontented.
Emerson was too much a Calvinist by reflex not to. Always something more to be done, said, or thought; always a potential in emptiness and poverty. And once that is felt, however feebly, Emerson wanted to feel only that, and give himself over to it. He used the experience of writing and reading to illustrate the idea. When Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father and a neighbor, told Emerson one day "that he found a dictionary fascinating," Emerson noted it in his journal, adding: "he looked out a word, and the morning was gone; for he was led on to another word, and so on and so on. It required abandonment." Abandonment, not a steady or natural state, is required. Anyone who has gotten lost in the thing he or she was doing knows how a morning gets lost, and usually regrets it. Emerson seems to have practiced it. In current terms, Emerson might sound like this: "Stop playing head-games. Focus. Be in the moment." But Emerson didn't revel in the results of such efforts. Rather, he reveled in the source of them—in what he calls the "unsounded center." In that abandonment, distinctions and categories disappear: you're in the zone. Nothing and something are one; being and doing are one; idleness and work are one; actions and words are one.
Of course, the zone can't last; it isn't the whole story. Emerson knew the pressure and stress of the world, and asked himself repeatedly whether literature in a democracy could be a vocation, a public service—and not an idleness, an indolence, a slacking-off. But he couldn't spend his time in questioning. Writing always already is action. The idea can be found in Aristotle, who defined "action" as "a movement of the soul" in his Poetics. Soul is the coincidence of idea and action, the place where promise and performance become indistinguishable. "Utterance," Emerson said, "is place enough." His first publication, Nature, in 1836, begins by observing how difficult it is to be alone, to find solitude—even in Concord, a village of 1,800 people. Hamlet has the same problem, but indoors, in a hereditary monarchy, where his succession is threatened. Emerson is Hamlet outdoors, in a rude democracy, where success is an obsession, and where, as he noted in his journal in 1838, if you sit down on a park bench to think, someone will ask if you have a headache. If thoughts are only headaches, what good are they? If you can't be in society what you are in solitude, then what are you?
William James addressed the problem again in 1903, on the hundredth anniversary of Emerson's birth: either you keep "a purely literary ideal," or you fight for what you think. But when you fight, you show that "writing down the bones" isn't enough. Once you try to realize the world of your thoughts, you're compromised; you might go commercial, might market yourself. You think of your fifteen minutes of fame rather than of your soul on the highway, commuting, alone. Emerson won't serve a culture that takes for granted an economic right to sell ourselves, to make ourselves attractive. "The attempt to attract deliberately," Emerson said, "is the beginning of falsehood." Tell that to the career counselors at your local chapter of Alumnae Resources or Robert Half International, where they give their candidates two ratings. The first is for looks, and that's the important one; the second is for skill and competence.
Emerson said that his essays were an "apology" to his country for his "apparent idleness." That apology has been persuasive with a small number of the people who identify their work as the study of literature. But most people don't study literature; they can hardly be expected to identify the study of literature with work. A safe rule of thumb: when Emerson (or any writer) puts the adjective "apparent" before a noun, he is at work to show that what appears to be the case is not the case. He is no more apologizing for something he doesn't feel sorry about than he is defending a practice—idleness—he doesn't engage in. In this sense, Emerson's suitable action, his calling, his work, his thing, was his "apparent idleness." He would act on the world as an "idler," a name which, if Hawthorne's "Custom-House" sketch can be admitted as evidence, may have been as commonly used on mid-nineteenth-century American writers as it was on English writers a century earlier. What does an "idler" do? He reads, talks, listens, and writes. If you're building railroads, or nursing, or clearing timber, a writer's activities look idle to you. But if you're the one reading and writing—and if you have to make money by your pen and voice, as Emerson did—then such idleness will look like work to you, and will get you what road-building gets those who do it: money.
But enough about Emerson. I've used him as a stalking horse, too, because I think he's right about the problem of form, which is partly what I've been talking about. In the first chapter of Representative Men, he says: "We are here to put our own interpretation on things, and to put our own things for interpretation." It's all there, and that sentence is only one of the thousands of forms the idea has taken. I think Gertrude Stein was saying the same thing when, after one of her lectures in America, a member of the audience complained. "Why don't you write the way you talk?" Stein answered, "Why don't you read the way I write?"
In difficult situations, people don't usually succeed in speaking that well. Not even in simple situations do most of us speak well or say what we mean. And anyone who speaks at length is suspect.
Mark Scott is the author of two books of poetry, Tactile Values (New Issues, 2000) and A Bedroom Occupation: Love Elegies (Lumen Books, 2007). He is completing two manuscripts, Emerson's Dispersals, and Unpoetrylessness, a collection of poems. An essay on Thoreau, Ellery Channing, and Emerson, "Something Peculiar in Concord," is forthcoming in Southwest Review. He lives in Omaha and teaches at the College of Saint Mary.